Brunswick clammers hope farm technique will revitalize flats

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BRUNSWICK — A full-time shellfish harvester received town approval last week to lease an acre of the New Meadows watershed for the state’s first purely intertidal commercial clam farm.

The three-year experimental lease, approved by the Town Council July 17, will legally allow only Chris Green and his partner Peter Holman to harvest and sell the soft- and hard-shell clams he grows in the single acre of mud off 323 Princes Point Road.

Local action was required because the town has jurisdiction over the intertidal zone. The state must also approve the project.

The project will continue a partnership Green has with scientists at Mamomet, who are collecting data on clam growth and survival rates of clams Green has already seeded. The farm is in an area of the New Meadows watershed that, like much of the Casco Bay region, has been devastated in recent years by invasive green crabs and milky ribbon worms.

That devastation destabilized the previously consistent bounty of wild-harvested clams, causing the income streams for Brunswick’s 55 commercially licensed shellfish harvesters to ebb and flow.

Those harvesters rely on the town’s 1,600 acres of mud flats for their income, yet the combination of state conservation closures and ravaged mud has left only 600 of those acres productive, according to Harbormaster Dan Devereaux.

The hope, Devereaux and Green said in an interview last week, is that his farm will do more than provide Green and his partner with a stable revenue stream to supplement their wild harvest – still the “backbone” of the industry – but also play a hand in revitalizing the area flats by introducing clam spawn in a monitored, controlled environment.

A new model

The practice of seeding clams and protecting them against predators with fine nettings is nothing new, according to Mamomet’s Ethel Wilkerson, who collects data on growth rates and the density of clams under Green’s nets.

Since warming waters increase predatory green crabs and milky ribbon worms – which either crush the clams’ shells or sneek in through their membrane and eat them – Wilkerson said diggers have participated in such efforts on their own and through municipal conservation programs.

Even before his lease came through, Green already seeded a half-acre of clams last fall off Prince’s Point Road.

But when his lease is approved by the state – hopefully by next month, he said – he’ll add another half acre of clams, including hard-shell, or quahogs, and he will have the exclusive harvesting rights to what is grown. 

“We’re on a peak now,” he said, describing the slower growth of predators. “But we do remember that the valleys are pretty low” – in times like the green crab invasion of 2012.

With aquaculture, Green said, he hopes he can “kind of plateau” his source of income with tighter control over the mud.

While Green reaps the immediate commercial profits, Wilkerson will collect data on the project’s long-term feasibility.

“We know how many seed clams went under each net, we are measuring how fast they are growing, and when the clams reach legal size we will sample the size and total weight of clams from each net,” Wilkerson said in an email. “From this information we can get an idea of how much money was earned by the harvester from each net and then compare that with the initial investment of seed clams and nets, the time the harvester worked on the farm.

Manomet’s goals is to understand if this method of farming is financially viable, not just technically possible.”

If successful, Wilkerson and Devereaux hope the farm could be a new model for the rest of the state.

“To my knowledge there are three or four intertidal leases in the state,” but none so far that are exclusively intertidal, Wilkerson said. “What makes Chris Green’s project unique is that his lease is solely intertidal for the purpose of raising clams (an emerging aquaculture strategy), and he had to get permissions from both the town and the adjacent landowners.”

Diggers have reported that it’s getting harder to find shorefront property owners willing to let clammers access flats through their property.

But for Green, that permission came easily from Robert Hollingshead and Judy Krupski, who live together in the cedar house Hollingshead built at 323 Princes Point, a wooded property that slopes into the bay.

“We just don’t see the diggers like we used to,” Krupski said last week, reflecting on the demise of clams in the flats below the house she’d lived in for the past 25 years. “I’m talking 15 years ago. They used to dig in this cove quite often, but they’re just not there anymore.”

Allowing Green and Holman to pass through their yard and down the steep, roped path to the flats doesn’t bother her or her partner, Robert, she said, because aiding area harvesters is “something that we both feel very strongly about.”

Like planting a tree

Last Sunday afternoon, low tide turned the view of the bay from Krupski and Hollinghead’s porch into a sea of smooth, light brown.

Breaking the continuum, however, were two specks wearing baseball caps, moving around a pattern of dark, rectangular patches of disturbed mud: Green and Holman were checking on how many net-covered clams had survived attacks from worms.

The verdict wasn’t good.

Down by the mud, Green held a milky ribbon worm in his hand, which had thwarted his nets and eaten a portion of his baby clams. He explained how the worms had done a similar job on the wild clams that used to populate the cove.

The farm will be an uphill battle, he said, but with Mamomet by his side, he hopes that the reintroduction of clams could eventually make the mud productive again.

If the venture succeeds, Devereaux said it could spur a cascading effect that could re-populate the entire area.

“It’s like planting an apple tree,” Devereaux told the council last week, explaining how spawn from Green’s farm will travel through the water column and re-seed themselves elsewhere – the underwater version of seeds blowing in the wind.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Commercial harvesters Chris Green, left, and Peter Holman lay down netting to protect seeded soft-shell clams from predatory green crabs and milky ribbon worm at their farm in Brunswick. The two are applying for a lease that would give them sole authority to harvest the clams they grow on a single acre of the New Meadows watershed.

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Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.